Monday, July 6, 2015

This Day in Literary History (Death of Real-Life Powell ‘Dance’ Villain)

July 6, 1945—Col. Denis Cuthbert Capel-Dunn died in a plane crash with other officials following the San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations. But this functionary in Britain’s Intelligence Corps, who otherwise would have been forgotten in histories written after WWII, was assured of immortality—albeit of a dubious kind—when he became the model for the villain of an epic novel series by subordinate Anthony Powell.

Powell (whose name was pronounced “Pole”) owed more than his literary career to Capel-Dunn; he owed him his life. Had his boss not sacked him, Powell may well have joined him on that fateful flight.

A Dance to the Music of Time featured more than 300 characters, but the one who provides a compulsive focus is Kenneth Widmerpool, the character based on Capel-Dunn. When glimpsed initially in the first novel in the sequence, A Question of Upbringing (1951), Widmerpool is an adolescent schoolboy ridiculed for wearing “the wrong kind of overcoat.” Thereafter he always seems uncomfortable in his own skin—and compensates by outworking and outscheming everyone he sees as his better.

Seldom has a fictional man on the make been rendered as so patently absurd—or so dangerous to run afoul of.  Winderpool’s the near-sighted, fat dork you laughed at in school, only now he’s in a position where he can make your life miserable—even get you killed. (Literally:  his lack of support for the Polish underground at a critical juncture winds up resulting in the death of one of those old school chums.)

In length, ambition and subject matter, Dance is a close match to another British multi-novel sequence, C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers. Both feature first-person narrators in an extended bildungsroman of emotional development and physical decline, from the 1920s to the late 1960s. Both are heavily influenced by Marcel Proust. Both focus, at one point or another, on bureaucrats in WWII and the postwar era, in what Snow called (in a term he popularized) the “corridors of power.”

But there is one important difference. The major bureaucrat of Strangers and Brothers is the narrator of the novels, Lewis Eliot, a lawyer who, after relating his own early disappointments and sorrows, earns reader trust and sympathy. The narrator of Dance is Nicholas Jenkins, a novelist who looks askance at the one character who, besides himself, figures throughout the 12-novel sequence: Widmerpool.

The unhappy experience of Powell during the war resembled that of his slightly older (two years) contemporary, Evelyn Waugh, who, after an initial burst of patriotism at the outbreak of war, came to abominate military life as “tedious and futile and fatiguing.” Waugh’s war-weariness found expression in his Sword of Honor trilogy, which many critics have hailed as among the finest work of his career.

Powell’s novels of his wartime experience constitute the third “movement” of his sequence. Widmerpool has already appeared off and on in earlier novels, and when Jenkins encounters him again, 20 years after his first appearance (still, significantly, in clothes uncomfortable for his overweight frame) as his new commanding officer, he is so delighted at this presence of a past that had once seemed forever lost that he wonders about “the disobliging light that seemed so innate since we had been at school together.”

After their interview, Jenkins knows he was right to feel what he had earlier, sensing that he is “now in Widmerpool’s power,” which understandably gives him “a disagreeable, sinking feeling within.”

Simon Russell Beale, who played Widmerpool in the 1997 British mini-series (including as a schoolboy, in the image accompanying this post), reputedly bore something of a resemblance to Capel-Dunn. This will give contemporary readers a flavor of the real-life original, described by a mutual acquaintance of his and Powell’s as “a very fat, extremely boring, overwhelmingly ambitious arriviste.”

While Capel-Dunn died at the end of the war, Powell allowed his fictional creation to carry on for another quarter-century. The novelist chafed at readers’ tendencies to ascribe all actions of a character to a real-life person, and we can see how he rebelled against these in this instance. 

Powell's overriding aim continued to be to imagine how Capel-Dunn might have found himself in new circumstances after the war, but he may well have drawn on other real-life individuals to fill out this portrait—including a Labour MP who had served covertly as a Soviet Army Intelligence agent before the war, then expelled  by Labour in the 1950s for his Stalinism. 

Widmerpool represented forces of social upheaval deeply lamented by the conservative Powell, who satirizes throughout as a continual ideological chameleon: businessman, confidante of Wallis Simpson, war bureaucrat, Labour Party MP under Clement Attlee, Soviet spy, editor of a left-wing magazine, university chancellor, counterculture supporter. His is the worst form of faddism that Powell could imagine, and he has become a byword since for ruthless ambition lacking in any fixed belief. 

Though John Mortimer's Rapstone Chronicles features a Thatcher-era conservative, Leslie Titmuss, rather than a Labour Party figure as its villain, even that trilogy tips its hat to Powell.  A Labour Party candidate late in the series is named Terry Flitton, bearing the same surname as the dangerous beauty who becomes Widmerpool's wife, Pamela Flitton.

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